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Video games and the
future of learning
December 2004
David Williamson Shaffer
Kurt R. Squire
Richard Halverson
James P. Gee
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory
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Video games and the future of learning
Will video games change the way we learn? We argue here for a particular view of
games—and of learning—as activities that are most powerful when they are personally
meaningful, experiential, social, and epistemological all at the same time. From this
perspective, we describe an approach to the design of learning environments that builds on the
educational properties of games, but deeply grounds them within a theory of learning
appropriate for an age marked by the power of new technologies. We argue that to understand
the future of learning, we have to look beyond schools to the emerging arena of video games.
We suggest that video games matter because they present players with simulated worlds: worlds
which, if well constructed, are not just about facts or isolated skills, but embody particular
social practices. Video games thus make it possible for players to participate in valued
communities of practice and as a result develop the ways of thinking that organize those
practices. Most educational games to date have been produced in the absence of any coherent
theory of learning or underlying body of research. We argue here for such a theory—and for
research that addresses the important questions about this relatively new medium that such a
theory implies.
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Video games and the future of learning
Computers are changing our world: how we work… how we shop… how we entertain
ourselves… how we communicate… how we engage in politics… how we care for our
health…. The list goes on and on. But will computers change the way we learn?
We answer: Yes. Computers are already changing the way we learn—and if you want to
understand how, look at video games. Look at video games, not because games that are
currently available are going to replace schools as we know them any time soon, but because
they give a glimpse of how we might create new and more powerful ways to learn in schools,
communities, and workplaces—new ways to learn for a new information age. Look at video
games because, although they are wildly popular with adolescents and young adults, they are
more than just toys. Look at video games because they create new social and cultural worlds:
worlds that help people learn by integrating thinking, social interaction, and technology, all in
service of doing things they care about.
We want to be clear from the start that video games are no panacea. Like books and
movies, they can be used in anti-social ways. Games are inherently simplifications of reality,
and current games often incorporate—or are based on—violent and sometimes misogynistic
themes. Critics suggest that the lessons people learn from playing video games as they currently
exist are not always desirable. But even the harshest critics agree that we learn something from
playing video games. The question is: how can we use the power of video games as a
constructive force in schools, homes, and at work?
In answer to that question, we argue here for a particular view of games—and of
learning—as activities that are most powerful when they are personally meaningful,
experiential, social, and epistemological all at the same time. From this perspective, we describe
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Video games and the future of learning
an approach to the design of learning environments that builds on the educational properties of
games, but deeply grounds them within a theory of learning appropriate for an age marked by
the power of new technologies.
Video games as virtual worlds for learning
The first step towards understanding how video games can (and we argue, will)
transform education is changing the widely shared perspective that games are “mere
entertainment.” More than a multi-billion dollar industry, more than a compelling toy for both
children and adults, more than a route to computer literacy, video games are important because
they let people participate in new worlds. They let players think, talk, and act—they let players
inhabit—roles otherwise inaccessible to them. A 16 year old in Korea playing Lineage can
become an international financier, trading raw materials, buying and selling goods in different
parts of the virtual world, and speculating on currencies. A Deus Ex player can experience life
as a government special agent, where the lines between state-sponsored violence and terrorism
are called into question.
These rich virtual worlds are what make games such powerful contexts for learning. In
game worlds, learning no longer means confronting words and symbols separated from the
things those words and symbols are about in the first place. The inverse square law of gravity is
no longer something understood solely through an equation; students can gain virtual
experience walking on worlds with smaller mass than the Earth, or plan manned space flights
that require understanding the changing effects of gravitational forces in different parts of the
solar system. In virtual worlds, learners experience the concrete realities that words and
symbols describe. Through such experiences, across multiple contexts, learners can understand
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Video games and the future of learning
complex concepts without losing the connection between abstract ideas and the real problems
they can be used to solve. In other words, the virtual worlds of games are powerful because they
make it possible to develop situated understanding.
Although the stereotype of the gamer is a lone teenager seated in front of a computer,
game play is also a thoroughly social phenomenon. The clearest examples are massively
multiplayer online games: games where thousands of players are simultaneously online at any
given time, participating in virtual worlds with their own economies, political systems, and
cultures. But careful study shows that most games—from console action games to PC strategy
games—have robust game playing communities. Whereas schools largely sequester students
from one another and from the outside world, games bring players together, competitively and
cooperatively, into the virtual world of the game and the social community of game players. In
schools, students largely work alone with school-sanctioned materials; avid gamers seek out
news sites, read and write faqs, participate in discussion forums, and most importantly, become
critical consumers of information. Classroom work rarely has an impact outside of the
classroom; its only real audience is the teacher. Game players, in contrast, develop reputations
in online communities, cultivate audiences as writers through discussion forums, and
occasionally even take up careers as professional gamers, traders of online commodities1, or
game modders and designers. The virtual worlds of games are powerful, in other words,
because playing games means developing a set of effective social practices.
By participating in these social practices, game players have an opportunity to explore
new identities. In one well-publicized case, a heated political contest erupted for the president
As Julian Dibbell, a journalist for Wired and Rolling Stone, has shown, it is possible to make a better living trading online currencies than one does as a freelance journalist!
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Video games and the future of learning
of Alphaville, one of the towns in The Sims Online. Arthur Baynes, the 21 year old incumbent
was running against Laura McKnight, a 14 year old girl. The muckraking, accusations of voter
fraud, and political jockeying taught young Laura about the realities of politics; the election also
gained national attention on NPR as pundits debated the significance of games where teens
could not only argue and debate politics, but run a political system where the virtual lives of
thousands of real players were at stake. The substance of Laura’s campaign, political alliances,
and platform—a platform which called for a stronger police force and an overhaul of the
judicial system—shows how deep the disconnect has become between the kinds of experiences
made available in schools and those available in online worlds. The virtual worlds of games are
rich contexts for learning because they make it possible for players to experiment with new and
powerful identities.
The communities that game players form similarly organize meaningful learning
experiences outside of school contexts. In the various web sites devoted to the game
Civilization, for example, players organize themselves around shared goal of developing
expertise in the game and the skills, habits, and understandings that requires. At (a
site devoted to the game), players post news feeds, participate in discussion forums, and trade
screenshots of the game. But they also run a radio station, exchange saved game files in order to
collaborate and compete, create custom modifications, and, perhaps, most uniquely, run their
own University to teach other players to play the game more deeply. Apolyton University
shows us how part of expert gaming is developing a set of values—values that highlight
enlightened risk-taking, entrepreneurialship, and expertise, rather than formal accreditation
emphasized by institutional education (Beck & Wade, 2004). If we look at the development of
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Video games and the future of learning
game communities, we see that part of the power of games for learning is the way they develop
shared values.
In other words, by creating virtual worlds, games integrate knowing and doing. But not
just knowing and doing. Games bring together ways of knowing, ways of doing, ways of being,
and ways of caring: the situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities,
and shared values that make someone an expert. The expertise might be of a modern soldier in
Full Spectrum Warrior, a zoo operator in Zoo Tycoon, a world leader in Civilization III. Or it
might be expertise in the sophisticated practices of gaming communities, such as those built
around Age of Mythology or Civilization III.
There is a lot being learned in these games. But for some educators it is hard to see the
educational potential in games because these virtual worlds aren’t about memorizing words, or
definitions, or facts.
Video games are about a whole lot more.
From the Fact Fetish to Ways of Thinking
A century ago, John Dewey argued that schools are built on a fact fetish, and it is still
true today. The fact fetish views any area of learning—whether physics, mathematics, or
history—as a body of facts or information. The measure of good teaching and to learning is the
extent to which students can answer questions about these facts on tests.
But to know is a verb before it is a noun, knowledge. We learn by doing—not just by
doing any old thing, but doing something as part of a larger community of people who share
common goals and ways of achieving those goals. We learn by becoming part of a community
of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and thus developing that community’s ways of knowing,
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Video games and the future of learning
acting, being, and caring—the community’s situated understandings, effective social practices,
powerful identities, and shared values.
Of course, different communities of practice have different ways of thinking and acting.
Take, for the sake of example, lawyers. Lawyers act like lawyers. They identify themselves as
lawyers. They are interested in legal issues. And they know about the law. These skills, habits,
and understandings, are made possible by looking at the world in a particular way—by thinking
like a lawyer. The same is true for doctors, but for a different way of thinking. And for
architects, plumbers, steelworkers, and waiters as much as for physicists, historians, and
The way of thinking—the epistemology—of a practice determines how someone in the
community decides what questions are worth answering, how to go about answering them, and
how to decide when an answer is sufficient. The epistemology of a practice thus organizes (and
is organized by) the situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, and
shared values of the community. In communities of practice, knowledge, skills, identities, and
values are shaped by a particular way of thinking into a coherent epistemic frame (Shaffer,
2004a). If a community of practice is a group with a local culture, then the epistemic frame is
the grammar of the culture: the ways of thinking and acting that individuals learn when they
become part of that culture.
Let’s look quickly at an example of how this might play out in the virtual world of a
video game. Full Spectrum Warrior (Pandemic Studios, for PC and Xbox) is a video game
based based on a U.S. Army training simulation2. But Full Spectrum Warrior is not a mere first2
The commercial game retains about 15% of what was in the Army’s original simulation. For more on this game
as a learning environment, see (Gee, in press).
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Video games and the future of learning
person shooter in which the player blows up everything on the screen. To survive and win the
game, the player has to learn to think and act like a modern professional soldier.
In Full Spectrum Warrior, the player uses the buttons on the controller to give orders to
two squads of soldiers, as well as to consult a GPS device, radio for support, and communicate
with rear area commanders. The Instruction Manual that comes with the game make it clear
from the outset that players must take on the values, identities, and ways of thinking of a
professional soldier to play the game successfully: “Everything about your squad,” the manual
explains, “is the result of careful planning and years of experience on the battlefield. Respect
that experience, soldier, since it’s what will keep your soldiers alive” (p. 2).
In the game, that experience—the skills and knowledge of professional military
expertise—is distributed between the virtual soldiers and the real-world player. The soldiers in
the player’s squads have been trained in movement formations; the role of the player is to select
the best position for them on the field. The virtual characters (the soldiers) know part of the task
(various movement formations) and the player knows another part (when and where to engage
in such formations). This kind of distribution holds for every aspect of military knowledge in
the game. However, the knowledge that is distributed between virtual soldiers and real-world
player in this game is not a set of inert facts; what is distributed are the values, skills, practices,
and (yes) facts that constitute authentic military professional practice. This simulation of the
social context of knowing allows players to act as if in concert with (artificially intelligent)
others, even within the single player context of the game.
In so doing, Full Spectrum Warrior shows how games take advantage of situated
learning environments. In games as in real life, people must be able to build meanings on the
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Video games and the future of learning
spot as they navigate their contexts. In Full Spectrum Warrior, players learn about suppression
fire through the concrete experiences they have had while playing. These experiences give a
working definition of suppression fire, to be sure. But they also let a player come to understand
how the idea applies in different contexts, what it has to do with solving particular kinds of
problems, and how it relates to other practices in the domain, such as the injunction against
shooting while moving.
Video games thus make it possible to “learn by doing” on a grand scale—but not just by
doing any old thing, wandering around in a rich computer environment to learn without any
guidance. These forms of learning, associated with progressive pedagogies, are bad theories of
learning. Learners are novices. Leaving them to float in rich experiences with no guidance only
triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and
generalizations. The fruitful patterns or generalizations in any domain are the ones that are best
recognized by those who already know how to look at the domain and know how complex
variables in the domain interrelate with each other. And this is precisely what the learner does
not yet know. In Full Spectrum Warrior, in contrast, the player is immersed in activity, values,
and ways of seeing. But the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the
virtual soldiers and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game. Players are not left
free to invent everything for themselves. To succeed in the game, they must live by—and
ultimately master—the epistemic frame of military doctrine.
Full Spectrum Warrior immerses the player in the activies, values, and ways of seeing—
the epistemic frame—of a modern soldier. In this sense it is an example of what we suggest is
the promise of video games and the future of learning: the development of epistemic games
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Video games and the future of learning
(Shaffer, in press).
Epistemic games for initiation and transformation
We have argued that video games are powerful contexts for learning because they make
it possible to create virtual worlds, and because acting in such worlds makes it possible to
develop the situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, shared
values, and ways of thinking of important communities of practice. To do that, one has to
understand how the epistemic frames of those communities are developed, sustained, and
changed. Some parts of practice are more central to the creation and development of an
epistemic frame than others; so analyzing the epistemic frame tells you, in effect, what might be
safe to leave out in a recreation of the practice. The result is a video game that preserves the
linkages between knowing and doing central to an epistemic frame—that is, an epistemic game
(Shaffer, in press). Such epistemic games let players participate in valued communities of
practice: to develop a new epistemic frame or to develop a better and more richly elaborated
version of an already mastered epistemic frame.
Developing games such as Full Spectrum Warrior that simultaneously build situated
understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, shared values, and ways of
thinking is clearly no small task. But the good news is that in many cases existing communities
of practice have already done a lot of that work. Doctors know how to create more doctors;
lawyers know how to create more lawyers; the same is true for a host of other socially-valued
communities of practice. Thus we can imagine a range of epistemic games in which players
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learn biology by working as a surgeon, history by writing as a journalist, mathematics by
designing buildings as an architect or engineer, geography by fighting as a soldier, French by
opening a restaurant. Or, more precisely, by inhabiting virtual worlds based on the way
surgeons, journalists, architects, soldiers, and restaurateurs develop their epistemic frames.
To build such games requires understanding how practitioners develop their ways of
thinking and acting. Such understanding is uncovered through epistemographies of practice:
detailed ethnographic studies of how the epistemic frame of a community of practice is
developed by new members. That is more work than is currently invested in most “educational”
video games. But the payoff is that such work can become the basis for an alternative
educational model. Video games based on the training of socially-valued practitioners let us
begin to build an educational system in which students learn to work (and thus to think) as
doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, journalists, and other important members of the
community—not in order to train for these pursuits in the traditional sense of vocational
education, but rather because developing those epistemic frames provides students with an
opportunity to see the world in a variety of ways that are fundamentally grounded in meaningful
activity and well aligned with the core skills, habits, and understandings of a postindustrial
society (Shaffer, 2004b).
One early example of such a game is Madison 2200, an epistemic game based on the
practices of urban planning (Beckett & Shaffer, 2004; Shaffer, in press). In Madison 2200,
players learn about urban ecology by working as urban planners to redesign a downtown
pedestrian mall popular with local teenagers. Players get a project directive from the mayor,
addressed to them as city planners, including a city budget plan and letters from concerned
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Video games and the future of learning
citizens about crime, revenue, jobs, waste, traffic, and affordable housing. A video features
interviews with local residents, business people, and community leaders about these issues.
Players conduct a site assessment of the street and work in teams to develop a land use plan,
which they present at the end of the game to a representative from the city planning office.
Not surprisingly, along the way players learn something about urban planning and its
practices. But something very interesting happens in an epistemic game like Madison 2200.
When knowledge is first and foremost a form of activity and experience—of doing something
in the world within a community of practice—the facts and information eventually come for
free. A large body of facts which resists out-of-context memorization and rote learning comes
easily if learners are immersed in activities and experiences which use these facts for plans,
goals, and purposes within a coherent knowledge domain. Data shows that in Madison 2200,
players form—or start to form—an epistemic frame of urban planning. But they also develop
their understanding of ecology and are able to apply it to urban issues. As one player
commented: “I really noticed how [urban planners] have to... think about building things... like
urban planners also have to think about how the crime rate might go up, or the pollution or
waste depending on choices.” Another said about walking on the same streets she had traversed
before the workshop: “You notice things, like, that’s why they build a house there, or that’s
why they build a park there.”
Perhaps this epistemic game doesn’t seem as game-like as SimCity, or Full Spectrum
Warrior. The players in Madison 2200 do enjoy their work. But more important is that the
experience lets them inhabit an imaginary world in which they are urban planners. The world of
Madison 2200 recruits these players to new ways of thinking and acting as part of a new way of
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Video games and the future of learning
seeing the world. Urban planners have a particular way of addressing urban issues. By
participating in an epistemic game based on urban planning, players begin to take on that way
of seeing the world. As a result, it is fun, too.
Games like Full Spectrum Warrior and Madison 2200 expose novices to the ways
professionals make sense of typical problems. But there are also games that are designed to
transform the ways of thinking of a professional community, and such games tend to focus
instead on atypical problems: places where ways of knowing break down in the face of a new or
challenging situation.
Just as games that initiate players into an epistemic frame depend on epistemographic
study of the training practices of a community, games designed to transform an epistemic frame
depend on detailed examination of how the mature epistemic frame of a practice is organized
and maintained—and on when and how the frame becomes problematic. These critical
moments of “expectation failure” (Schank, 1997) are the points of entry for reorganizing
experienced practitioners’ ways of thinking. Building the common assumptions of an existing
epistemic frame into a game allows experienced professionals to cut right to the key learning
For example, work on military leadership simulations has used goal-based scenarios
(Schank, 1992; Schank, Fano, Bell, & Jona, 1994) to build training simulations based on the
choices military leaders face when setting up a base of operations (Gordon, 2004). In the
business world, systems like RootMap (Root Learning create
graphical representations of professional knowledge, offering suggestions for new practice by
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Video games and the future of learning
surfacing breakdowns in conventional understanding. Studies of school leaders similarly
suggest that the way professionals frame problems has a strong impact on the possible solutions
they are willing and able to explore (Halverson, 2003, 2004). This ability to successfully frame
problems in complex systems is difficult to cultivate, but Halverson and Rah (2004) have
shown that a multimedia representation of successful problem framing strategies—such as how
a principal reorganized her school to serve disadvantaged students—can help school leaders
reexamine the critical junctures where their professional understanding is incomplete or
ineffective for dealing with new or problematic situations.
Epistemic games and the future of schooling
Epistemic games give players freedom to act within the norms of a valued community
of practice—norms that are embedded in non-player characters like the virtual soldiers in Full
Spectrum Warrior or real urban planners and planning board members in Madison 2200. To
work successfully within the norms of a community, players necessarily learn to think as
members of the community. Think for a moment about the student who, after playing Madison
2200, walked down the same streets she had been on the day before and noticed things she had
never seen. This is situated learning at it’s most profound—a “transfer” of ideas from one
context to another that is elusive, rare, and powerful. It happened not because the student
learned more information, but because she learned it in the context of a new way of thinking—
an epistemic frame—that let her see the world in a new way.
While there are not yet any complete epistemic games in wide circulation, there already
exist many games that provide similar opportunities for deeply situated learning. Rise of
Nations and Civilization III provide rich, interactive environments to explore counterfactual
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Video games and the future of learning
historical claims and help players understand the operation of complex historical modeling.
Railroad Tycoon lets players engage in design activities that draw on the same economic and
geographic issues faced by the railroad engineers in the 1800s. Madison 2200 shows the
pedagogical potential of bringing students the experience of being city planners, and we are in
the process of developing projects that similarly let players work as biomechanical engineers
(Svarovsky & Shaffer, 2004), journalists (Shaffer, 2004b), professional mediators (Shaffer,
2004c), and graphic designers (Shaffer, 1997). Other epistemic games might involve players
experiencing the world as an evolutionary biologist, or tailor in colonial Williamsburg.
But even if we had the world’s best educational games produced and ready for the
shelves, it’s not clear that most educators or schools would know what to do with them. While
the majority of students play video games, the majority of teachers do not. Games, perhaps for
their anti-authoritarian aesthetics and inherently anti-Puritanical values, can be seen as
challenging to institutional education. Even if we strip aside the blood and guts that characterize
some video games, the reality is that as a form, games encourage exploration, personalized
meaning-making, individual expression, and playful experimentation with social boundaries—
all of which cut against-the-grain of the social mores valued in school. In other words, even if
we sanitize games, the theories of learning embedded in them run counter to the current social
organization of schooling. The next challenge for game and school designers alike is to
understand how to shape learning in terms of games, and how to integrate games and gamebased learning environments into the predominant arena for learning: schools.
How might school leaders and teachers bring more extended experiments with epistemic
games into the culture of the school? The first step will be for superintendents and public
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Video games and the future of learning
spokespersons to move beyond the rhetoric of games as violent-serial-killer-inspiring-timewasters and address the range of learning opportunities that games present. Understanding how
games can provide powerful learning environments might go a long way toward shifting the
current anti-gaming rhetoric. While epistemic games of the kind we describe here are not yet on
the radar of most educators, they are already being used by corporations, the government, the
military—and even by political groups—to express ideas and teach facts, principles, and world
views. Schools and school systems must soon follow suit or risk being swept aside.
A new model of learning
The past century has seen an increasing identification of learning with schooling. But
new information technologies challenge this union in fundamental ways. Today’s technologies
make the world’s libraries accessible to anyone with a wireless PDA. A vast social network is
literally at the fingertips of anyone with a cell phone. As a result, people have unprecedented
freedom to bring resources together to create their own learning trajectories. But classrooms
have not adapted. Theories of learning and instruction embodied in school systems designed to
teach large numbers of students a standardized curriculum are antiquated in this new world.
Good teachers and good school leaders fight for new technologies and new practices. But
mavericks grow frustrated at the fundamental mismatch between the social organization of
schooling and the realities of life in a post-industrial, global, high-tech society (Sizer, 1984).
While the general public and some policy makers may not have recognized this mismatch in the
push for standardized instruction, our students have. School is increasingly seen as irrelevant by
many students past the primary grades.
Thus, we argue that to understand the future of learning, we have to look beyond
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Video games and the future of learning
schools to the emerging arena of video games. We suggest that video games matter because
they present players with simulated worlds: worlds which, if well constructed, are not just about
facts or isolated skills, but embody particular social practices. And we argue that video games
thus make it possible for players to participate in valued communities of practice and as a result
develop the ways of thinking that organize those practices.
Our students will learn from video games. The questions are: who will create these
games and will they be based on sound theories of learning and socially conscious educational
practices? The American Army, a longtime leader in simulations, is building games like Full
Spectrum Warrior and America’s Army—games that introduce civilians to military ideology.
Several homeland security games are under development, as are a range of games for health
education, from games to help kids with cancer better treat themselves, to simulations to help
doctors perform surgery more effectively. Companies are developing games for learning history
(Making History), engineering (Time Engineers), and the mathematics of design (Homes of Our
This interest in games is encouraging, but most educational games to date have been
produced in the absence of any coherent theory of learning or underlying body of research. We
need to ask and answer important questions about this relatively new medium. We need to
understand how the conventions of good commercial games to create compelling virtual worlds.
We need to understand how inhabiting a virtual world develops situated knowledge—how
playing a game like Civilization III, for example, mediates players’ conceptions of world
history. We need to understand how spending 1000s of hours participating in the social,
political, and economic systems of a virtual world develops powerful identities and shared
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Video games and the future of learning
values. We need to understand how game players develop effective social practices and skills in
navigating complex systems, and how those skills can support learning in other complex
domains. And most of all, we need to leverage these understandings to build games that develop
for players the epistemic frames of scientists, engineers, lawyers, and other valued communities
of practice—as well as games that can help transform those practices for experienced
Video games have the potential to change the landscape of education as we know it. The
answers to fundamental questions such as these will make it possible to use video games to
move our system of education beyond the traditional academic disciplines, derived from
medieval scholarship and constituted within schools developed in the industrial revolution, and
towards a new model of learning through meaningful activity in virtual worlds as preparation
for meaningful activity in our post-industrial, technology-rich, real world.
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